My first day in a professional kitchen was shocking. Some would say my choice of entry was less than ideal: a chronically busy Soho restaurant with a shoebox-sized kitchen, the embodiment of every kitchen cliché in the book. Stiflingly hot, overcrowded, sweaty, burning arms, impossibly instantaneous time crunch. Perhaps worst of all, the dull but marked, unwashable odor of what can simply be called “food”, soaked into your pores as you got into bed.
It was almost too busy to swivel your head and learn anything besides your rote task. Almost. On that first day, I learned that chefs, whether from years of confinement or some other reason, need an editor. I mean a brutal one. Like the guy at the New Yorker with a red pen the size of a cigar soaked with a bathtub of ink.
The mussels did it for me. As a bowl of beautiful mussels, steamed in the classic way-wine, shallots, thyme, etc.-reached his station, he pulled out the squeeze bottle, stood the mussels open end up and filled each with aioli. In other words transforming a mouthful of fresh, sweet mussel into a forkful of mayo. Fearing assault by hot pan, I opted not to suggest an alternative arrangement.
Here was a chef thinking in reverse: sauce first, then mussels. Or, if not thinking entirely in reverse, at least stretching to serve something “different”. Thinking in reverse is sometimes a good idea. But there’s reverse and there’s awkward, usually in the form of an odd mixing. If you’re going to think in reverse, it’s sometimes better to separate Part A from Part B rather than grabbing the wooden spoon and tossing them together.
This dish, I admit, came about in reverse: aioli first, protein second. I’ve never quite understood the difference between aioli and rouille. I know breadcrumbs are often blended into the latter, but if you check the web under “rouille” you’ll find essentially aioli recipes, breadcrumb-free. Flipping through books I came to the general conclusion which may offend purists: they’re interchangeable.
Fixing on a nice, green, herby aioli, I considered its match. Next came simple poached shrimp. Followed by fresh orange slices. I considered a shrimp salad, which would have worked well. But the other day I happened to walk by my old restaurant. Pausing by the window to check out the menu I saw he still had mussels with aioli on there. Back home, I took out the culinary red pen and did a little editing.
Poached Shrimp w/ Orange and Parsley Aioli
Serves 4 as an appetizer
½ cup parsley leaves
2 cloves garlic, peeled, minced to a puree
1 whole egg
½ cup canola oil
½ cup olive oil
24 shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 navel orange
salt and pepper
- Bring a small pot of water to boil and set next to it a bowl of ice water. Add the leaves to the boiling water, count to 10, remove with a slotted spoon into the ice bath to set the color. Wring as dry as possible and chop finely.
- Combine the garlic and egg in a bowl and slowly drizzle in the oils, using an immersion blender to emulsify. (alternatively, use a whisk). Add the minced parsley and blend completely. It will be thick and light green. Season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate.
- Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add the shrimp and poach for 4 minutes. Drain and chill under cold water. Season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate.
- Quarter the orange and slice horizontally into 1/8 inch triangles. You’ll only need probably half the orange. Use the other half for garnish. Strips of zest would look nice.
- To complete, toss the shrimp gently in a large bowl. You don’t want to break up the segments. Marinate in the fridge for half hour. Divide among four small bowls or glasses, served with a side of aioli. Serve.